Gongol.com Archives: August 2023

Brian Gongol


August 8, 2023

The United States of America Arbitrary tests

One of the eight candidates to qualify for the first Republican Party 2024 Presidential debate has proposed that the Constitution be amended to prevent anyone under age 25 from voting until they've passed a civics test. ■ It's cagey, of course, to appeal to older voters by going after those who are already the least likely to participate. The implication, of course is that they are less qualified to cast ballots due to their youth and inexperience. At first glance, it even sounds like a modest standard to test: The same type of exam that immigrants must past in order to become naturalized. ■ But that isn't a valid test to impose on a right obtained by birth. A democracy is no less legitimate if its voters are less skilled. We don't celebrate the democratization of countries where autocracy previously prevailed because the voters somehow all took a class together. We celebrate democratization because it is a mark of legitimacy. People have a right to choose their own government, even if it's a faulty or ineffective one. ■ That's what democracy is really about. Elections are an exercise in periodically obtaining or renewing the consent of the governed. That's it. A perfectly competent government can lack legitimacy if it came to power through unjust or undemocratic means. And a totally incompetent government can yet still be legitimate, as long as it governs through consent. ■ Democracy is a process. The outcomes of elections matter, of course, and a chronic failure to perform up to people's expectations can have terribly corrosive effects on the perceived legitimacy of a government. Democratic backsliding is an enormous threat, and it all too often starts when people lose their faith in the performance legitimacy of their government. People, quite reasonably, want a government that "works". ■ Should all voters, ideally, have a good deal of civic literacy? Yes, certainly. But voter quality matters mainly as an input to obtaining good outcomes from a democratic process. The quality of the outcome does not determine whether the process itself is legitimate, in democracies old and new alike. As Condoleezza Rice wrote, "Voting is the single most important and symbolic act of a liberated people, and they are reluctant to wait. The circumstances of the first elections are not likely to favor liberal forces." ■ Democracies pick lousy governments all the time. And then, they are welcome to send those bad governments to the unemployment lines. It may not happen as swiftly as people might want, but election cycles have to be long enough to confer a little stability on the process. ■ In the long run, the civic quality of voters matters a great deal, and a healthy republic works hard to renew itself so that everyone pulls their own weight in that regard. But it's not a matter for arbitrarily testing the civic virtue of some and not others. Historically, many Americans were illiterate, and we are the heirs to their democracy. What made it legitimate then, and legitimate now, is that it was constructed on a foundation of consent.


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